What is Love?

“Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Happy Valentine’s Day!  It is the day we pick to celebrate love.  But, I have a question.  What do we mean by “love”?  I mean, really, what is love?

Did you know that there are seven distinct words in Greek that describe different kinds of love? With the Olympics going on, I reflected back on the two years I spent studying the Greek language and ancient Greek manuscripts as part of my Master’s program.  I have to be honest, I barely got by.  I kept looking at the Greek texts and thinking about math problems.  I found it way easier to understand quantum mechanics than how to conjugate ancient Greek verbs into the correct indicative mood and pluperfect tense.  Yet I found it profound that there are seven Greek words to represent the one word we have in English: Love.  We have so overloaded that word that it seems to have lost all of its meaning.  We “love” sunsets, our favorite Super Bowl winning football team, cars, family, artwork, friends and weekends.  Is it all the same?  The ancient Greeks didn’t think so.

Three of the seven Greek words for love really resonated with me. They are seen throughout ancient literature.  I think they can give us a modern insight into love that we may have lost today.  They are: Eros, Philia and Agape.  In the spirit of the Olympics, I think they represent the three winning medals: bronze, silver and gold.  I won’t make this a full course in etymology, but if you will bear with me, I would love (no pun intended) to unpack each one of those words and see how it relates to our modern concepts of love.

Eros is ἔρως.  I warned you it would look like a math lesson.  If that seems like it is all Greek to you, well it is.  This bronze word represents love as a feeling and a passion.  Plato and Socrates argue that eros is the soul acknowledging beauty.  The emotional elements of this type of love are strong and is the etymology behind words like erotic.  By far, this is the one form of love that we sing about the most.  Huey Lewis says it is the “power”, The J Geils Band would say it “stinks” and Foreigner just wants to know what it is.  Queen, Beyoncé and Jay-Z think it is “crazy”.  Captain and Tennille think it keeps people together, but Tina Turner just wants to know what that has to do with it.  Ray Charles can’t stop it and Whitney Houston will always have it.  The Bee Gees want to know how deep it goes and Diana Ross and Lionel Richie know it is endless.

Philia is φιλία.  Are you thinking about a fraternity or sorority by now?  This shiny silver form of love is related to friendship, community, loyalty to friends, care for family and kindness to fellow equals, often expressed as “brotherly love”.  Philia is the root of words like philosophy (love of wisdom) and philanthropy (love of human kind) representing the affection we place on things familiar and close to us. We see this at work in our lives through our affection and attraction to a group of like-minded individuals who also support us.  In our community, this is expressed as a connection with individuals that have shared needs, experiences or goals.  It can be tribal, national, or even global.  Building communities and getting to know each other builds philia, which I think we can all agree, we could use a bit more of these days.

Agape is ἀγάπη. The Greeks built on the Phoenician characters, creating the first true “alphabet” (alpha beta) by including vowels along with constants.  This form of love begins with alpha (α), the first letter.  In a lot of ways, this golden form of love is elevated above the others in its expression and could be considered “the first love”.  Unlike the other forms of love, this love is not determined by the object of the love. It is solely determined by the originator.  Said differently, agape is not a love that arises from passion, reciprocation, community or even the loveliness or the familiarity of the object being loved.  Instead, it is a willful, volitional love that is solely decided upon by the giver of this love without expecting anything in return.  We often call this “selfless” or “self-sacrificing” love.  It expresses itself in random acts of kindness, empathy, volunteer work and charity.  It thinks about the other person more than itself.  It is often considered a divine love, tightly coupled with mercy, unmerited kindness and grace.  It seeks the good for others.  It is the antithesis of hate.  It gives.  It endures.  It loves no matter what.  In this way, it is the pinnacle of love.  It can change the world.  In my mind, it gets the gold.

On this Valentine’s Day, I wish you love…. eros, philia and agape… but most of all, I wish you agape.  Set your sights on the gold!  Love others with all your heart.